During the 2016 Democratic primaries, the rise of Bernie Sanders on the U.S. national stage was unexpected by just about everyone, including the corporate media. As a result of this, most anchors and pundits were not ready with effective criticisms and attacks, a situation many in media have been trying to rectify ever since. The main problem they’ve faced is the candidate’s remarkable consistency in terms of his views over decades.
To take one recent example of what they’ve come up with, at a CNN town hall on April 22 in Manchester, NH, Sanders was asked about his feelings on whether incarcerated felons should still be allowed to vote. An interesting discussion might have ensued, especially considering that so many of those behind bars in the United States are there for non-violent drug offenses. Unfortunately, the framing that was given by the initial questioner and then followed up on by host Chris Cuomo, was whether sex offenders or a monster like the Boston Bomber should retain this basic democratic right.
Obviously aware that
he could hurt himself politically, Sanders still articulated his
belief that all adult citizens should have this right, as unpopular
as it might be in extreme cases with many of his fellow citizens,
“Look, this is what I believe: Do you believe in democracy? Do you
believe that every single American — 18 years of age or older, who
is an American citizen — has the right to vote? Once you start
chipping away at that— believe me, that’s what our Republican
governors all over this country are doing. They come up with all
kinds of excuses why people of color, young people, poor people can’t
vote. And I will do everything that I can to resist it.”
While the larger message Senator Sanders made about the chipping away of voting rights, especially for marginalized communities, was lost on the many cable news talking heads lambasting him in the wake of his honest answer, it once again showed supporters that the he won’t go against his principles to pander to voters (or, for that matter, newsreaders).
Though television interviews and town halls stacked with political operatives can be effective in creating ‘gotcha’ moments like this one, print media are also in on the act, if not always aiming for exactly the same audience.
In an era when sensitivities over antisemitism are rightly high, centrist outlet Politico released what its editors probably thought was a bombshell article, which is mainly just another irritatingly long rehash of the reveal of the candidate’s millionaire status first reported on in April. Besides the author Michael Kruse calling the candidate ‘cheap’, something of a trope itself, it was the art that accompanied the article that caused so much offense to the progressives who form the base of the Sanders’ support.
In the main image, Senator Sanders is pictured next to a tree made of money. It’s somewhat hard to believe that no one at the news-site thought this might be considered offensive, considering he’s Jewish and that such imagery has been used to stoke antisemitism in the past.
Worse, in a since deleted tweet pointed out by Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez teasing the article, the outlet said, “Bernie Sanders might still be cheap, but he’s sure not poor.”
AOC also commented on the art in her reply to the tweet, saying, “Can @politico explain to us how photoshopping money trees next to the only Jewish candidate for president and talking about how “cheap” and rich he is *isn’t* antisemitic?”
As is often the case with these kinds of long articles, most of the positives about the candidate appear later in the piece, likely in the hope of appearing unbiased while knowing that not all readers go past the first couple of paragraphs where most of the negative points are made. At one point far into the article, Kruse quotes from something Senator Sanders wrote on a legal pad under the title, “My Political Philosophy” sometime near the middle of his tenure as Burlington’s mayor, which lasted from 1981-1989:
“Ultimately, I believe in democracy—that we should live in a society where all of our citizens help decide what happens—and where all of our citizens enjoy the fruits of their labor. In practical terms, the development of a democratic society in our nation would mean a far greater degree of citizen participation, public ownership of production, and a far more equal distribution of wealth and power.”
“Essentially, I believe that 200 people years after the 1st American Rev.—we need a 2nd American Revolution.”
This sounds very much like what Senator Sanders was saying on the campaign trail in 2016 and continues to say today. Could a more centrist opponent like Joe Biden show the same consistency over a career of similar length?
As in almost every recent attack on him, reporters and pundits are going pretty far back in time to find things to criticize.
A case in point were resurfaced videos of a public access TV show, Bernie Speaks to the Community, that he did in the 1980s, including a somewhat delightful conversation with punk kids about socialism, but in all honesty, even though some commentators have tried to find these videos objectionable, for most they just make the earnest Vermont senator more likeable.
When not digging
deep into the past, some criticisms are voiced based on sheer
speculation. On Wednesday, an outlet very similar to Politico (they
often seem to draw on each other’s stories) The Hill, published a
piece based almost entirely on unnamed sources for its conclusions,
saying that Sanders could be a spoiler in this U.S. election cycle,
with one unnamed aide to a fellow senator quoted as saying, “I
think Bernie will do everything in his power to elevate himself by
pushing others down.”
While some still
accuse him of having played this spoiler role the last time around, it’s
important to remember that Sanders campaigned tirelessly throughout
the country for the Democratic Party’s eventual nominee after the
primaries. In the end, although it’s rarely reported, more Sanders
primary supporters voted for Hillary Clinton in the last election
than Clinton supporters voted for Barack Obama in 2008.
Not content to let insider outlets like Politico and The Hill do all the heavy lifting, the New York Times a little more than a week ago published an article and then an interview with Sanders focused on foreign policy, once again going back to the 1980s when the then mayor was vocal in his calls for the U.S. government to stop supporting and funding right-wing terrorists and death squads in Central America.
In the interview
published after the initial story, reporter Sydney Ember repeatedly
asks if Sanders heard anti-American chants that were reportedly made
at a rally he attended in Managua, Nicaragua at the time, to which he
replied, stating the obvious, “I don’t remember, no. Of course
there was anti-American sentiment there. This was a war being funded
by the United States against the people of Nicaragua. People were
being killed in that war.”
While the current
government of Nicaragua has its problems, its hard to argue that
Sanders wasn’t on the right side of history on this and almost
every foreign policy issue since, including a lonely vote against the Iraq war
in late 2002. Rather than focusing on
40 years ago, Ember might have asked about how Senator Sanders
shepherded a vote to end U.S. participation in the Saudi led war in
Yemen through a Republican controlled Senate this year, only to have
it vetoed by the current occupant of the White House.
On a more positive note, also all but uncovered, Sanders has still found the time to support union and other grassroots organizing, even allowing his own staff and volunteers to aid these efforts.
As Ryan Grim wrote in an excellent piece on this phenomenon on The Intercept, “It’s common for a politician to make a brief appearance on a picket line to show solidarity with a cause, but it’s practically unheard for a campaign to divert its own volunteers away from the mission of electing its candidate. This act of activism flows directly from the bottom-up approach taken by the 2020 Sanders campaign, which is not just in stark contrast to every other presidential campaign: It’s also a sharp reversal from the approach taken by the leadership of the 2016 Sanders campaign.”
By not just running a campaign but building a movement over time that can direct its energies toward issues progressives care about, Senator Sanders has changed the American political landscape, helping to usher in a new class of more activist politicians including AOC and Rashida Tlaib. Now he just has to wait for most of the media and the American political class to acknowledge and understand it, probably a more difficult task.